A Massachusetts Town Leads a Way Out of the Housing Crisis

Not long ago, I told a sad story of something that had happened half a century earlier in my home town of Lexington, Massachusetts. In the late nineteen-sixties, spurred by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Lexington had formed a Suburban Responsibility Commission, which undertook to figure out how to integrate the town.

Powered by NewsAPI , in Liberal Perspective on .

news image

Not long ago, I told a sad story of something that had happened half a century earlier in my home town of Lexington, Massachusetts. In the late nineteen-sixties, spurred by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Lexington had formed a Suburban Responsibility Commission, which undertook to figure out how to integrate the town. Lexington’s segregation—on the surface, at least—was enforced more by economics than bigotry; at the time, Black people were, for all the obvious historical reasons, poorer than their white counterparts, and few could afford to buy into the rapidly escalating real-estate market. Zoning regulations in Lexington—as in so many other places around the country—helped to insure that this remained the case: for the most part, they favored stand-alone homes that came with their own back yards, their own driveways.

To make housing somewhat more affordable required multifamily dwellings, and, by 1971, the commission had agreed on a subsidized-housing development of roughly a hundred and fifty units, on 8.4 acres. The town fathers (and they were mostly fathers) lined up behind the plan: it passed the zoning board; it had the backing of the town’s churches and business leaders. And, finally, it went to the Town Meeting for a vote. Lexington’s Town Meeting was made up of two hundred and three representatives, elected by voters in nine precincts, who met for several weeks each spring, conducting the town’s business. And, in the spring, they approved the subsidized-housing plan.

But local law allowed residents to gather signatures to force a town-wide plebiscite, and that’s what happened. After a short campaign, more than half the town’s registered voters went to the polls, and a majority seemingly decided that they wanted to take no chances with the onward march of property values in their tidy community. The plan was voted down, 5,175 to 2,718. The local newspaper reported that the defeat represented “a strong voice against subsidized housing for Lexington.” So any future planning, an editorial noted, should “be done slowly and cautiously.”

Slowly and cautiously, indeed—fifty-two years later, last Wednesday night, Lexington Town Meeting voted 1src7–63 to rezone the town to make it much, much easier to build multifamily housing on a dozen different sites around town. This plan isn’t exactly like the one of a half century ago; nobody proposed a subsidized-housing development. But now, across two hundred and twenty-seven acres, developers will be able to build multifamily dwellings “by right,” without getting a special permit, as was formerly required. The units will, at the very least, be cheaper than Lexington’s stock of single-family homes, which currently sell for a median price of two million dollars.

People opposed to the plan complained that new buildings might block the sun, or change the historic character of the town. (Lexington styles itself “the birthplace of American liberty,” because, on its town green, local farmers and tradesmen began the Revolution against British aristocrats.) And they came close to passing an amendment that would have dramatically narrowed the scope of the new zoning. But, as Mike Kennealy—a Lexington resident who headed the state’s Housing and Economic Development Agency in the recently departed Republican administration of Governor Charlie Baker—told the Town Meeting, “This is a chance for Lexington to lead. . . . Isn’t that what we want to do? Be out there early and show what’s possible.”

His remarks about leadership weren’t just rhetoric. Lexington has now become the first town to meet its obligation under a new Massachusetts law that requires every town served by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s bus, train, and subway lines to allow denser housing along those transit corridors. The theory is that, with more housing being built in the suburbs, the real crisis of high rents and housing shortages in urban areas will begin to ease, and that putting more homes adjacent to public-transportation routes should help to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. In an editorial, the Boston Globe offered congratulations, saying that “other municipalities in Greater Boston should follow Lexington’s example,” and noting that the town had gone well beyond the new law, opening up more acreage than was required to eventual multifamily development. So far, too many other communities are dragging their heels—not just in Massachusetts but in California and in enclaves in other blue states across the country. They’ve been encouraged to do so by the worst forces in our politics; Donald Trump, toward the desperate end of his 2src2src campaign, boasted that, by not enforcing federal housing laws, he had “saved your suburbs” and that without him chaos would ensue. He asked, “Would you like a nice low-income housing project next to your suburban beautiful ranch-style house?”

In a sense, the new law responds less to the legacy of racism than to the new crises of housing affordability and rising temperatures. But, of course, all those traumas are interlinked. Lexington, for all its liberalism (Joe Biden got 81.8 per cent of the Presidential vote there in 2src2src), has a population that is only 1.2-per-cent Black and 2.2-per-cent Latino, though there has been a substantial increase in the number of Asian American residents. And the issue of poverty persists.

The most persuasive voice in the Town Meeting debates may have been that of one of its youngest members, Salvador Jaramillo, who is a junior at Harvard, and grew up in one of the town’s few existing apartment buildings. “My family lives in multifamily housing; without it, we wouldn’t be able to live here in Lexington,” he said. “When my family dealt with financial hardship and eventual homelessness, we were told by many people in this town that we didn’t belong in Lexington and we should move somewhere else. How do you think it makes me feel when some people from a point of great privilege say that they don’t want the type of multifamily housing that I live in because it looks ugly?”

The saga may not quite be over. Just as in 1971, the possibility remains that a town-wide referendum could undo the Town Meeting vote. One resident had collected about six hundred and fifty signatures on a petition in an unsuccessful effort to postpone that vote. “Let me be clear that the views I’m presenting are not against the principle of multifamily and inclusionary housing,” he said, adding that he wanted more time to consider the possible height of the new homes. Fifty-two years seems like time enough, though; letting the new law stand would seem like a sweet and welcome moment of, well, suburban responsibility. ♦

Read More